My absence from Nepal over the last 17 years allows me to see clearly how much change has overtaken my countrywomen and men during this period in terms of what they wear today and what they have discarded. If I were to allow myself to think like a conservative, middle-aged woman, the change would seem shocking. Fortunately, I may be middle aged but not conservative by a long shot. I therefore am able to gauge the changes without the attitude of a woman frozen in the past. And certainly, the women of Nepal have changed the dress code, and this is obvious in what my mother wore, what I wear, and what my would-be young adult daughter would have worn (I do not have one). After the editor of Himal asked me to write about the sartorial transformation that has overtaken the kingdom, I asked all of 50 provocatively-dressed young Kathmandu women why they chose to dress the way they did. Was the choice dictated by peer pressure, social demands or a need to display economic wellbeing? I, not conservative at all, did a double-take when, with the exception of one, 49 women replied that they selected their fashions to look “sexy”.
To be more precise, most said that their boyfriends told them they looked sexy if they had a slim body and substantial chests, and those too enhanced by wearing tight, sleeveless, above-the-navel blouses, and tight, under-the-navel pants, dyed hair, heavy make-up, and high-heel shoes. Among these ‘daringly’ dressed girls, only five were from the Bahun, Chettri and Newar groups. Most of the girls came from Indian or British Gurkha families, or of parents engaged in the export-import business. Most were in college, some in high school, others working as secretaries, and a few were “doing nothing”. I met all these young women within the space of a week in various restaurants around Kathmandu.
I wonder how I would dress up if I were in my late teens today. In my own case, I graduated to the saree after I completed my Masters and took up teaching. The saree was the social norm in the 1970s, even the dress code, of a college teacher. That did not mean I stopped wearing kurtas, trousers, or lungis at home. Now, almost 30 years later, with nearly a two-decade sojourn in the US, I even wear Western dresses in public. I am not sure what my mother’s reaction would be to my wardrobe if she were alive, but I would certainly revolt against a boyfriend who insisted that I wear clothes to enhance sexiness. There’s another factor to remember of course—whatever may be his inclinations while romancing, once married the man (now a husband) suddenly becomes more conservative than you are.
The Nepali Congress leader Mangala Devi Singh once told me that when she started a social campaign in the 1950s, asking young women to discard their shawls, she was accused of trying to disturb the social norm. The wedding “Bahiri Saree” (outer saree) of my mother—a mere seven-year-old then—was 40 hath long, all of 20 yards. My youngest aunt’s was only 20 hath long, and she was married at 10. Twenty hath was the standard length for day-to-day use at that time. Back then, there was no custom of wearing petticoats, panties, or bras, but they did wear a ten-hath patuka around their waists to hold their sarees, and also perhaps to support the back during strenuous work. On top of their chaubandi blouse they wore a khasto shawl. Slowly, over time, my mother and aunt came down to 12-hath sarees.
Back to the present—the Kathmandu fashion scene seems to be increasingly dominated by ‘Western’ dresses which would be considered rather unconventional and even risque in the real West. There, politically conscious women have understood that revealing clothes are to be discarded, as they are designed thus by men for women to look sexy. Men enslave women through fashion, and, take it from me, male fashion designers design clothes for the women they do not have to marry.
A year ago, I met a Nepali film actress at a party, and was rudely surprised to see someone else than the pretty Nepali girl in chaubandi-saree, chura-pote, and dhago I expected. Instead, she looked like a newly-arrived New York Hispanic with a cheap-looking midi and moccasin-type boots. When I asked someone from her modest entourage why she was not in a Nepali dress, he said, “What is ‘Nepali’? Everybody wears American clothes in Nepal these days.” Well, perhaps that was an overstatement, but it does seem that he is right to an extent, at least as seen in my own sampling.
On the Kathmandu streets, these days one spots very few women wrapped in the saree, while the kurta suruwal (i.e. the salwar kameez) is ubiquitous. Some kurtas are so long that you can barely see their suruwals. Others are so flappy and long-cut down the side, you never knew you could see so much leg in this dress.
At the other end of the fashion spectrum from the salwar kameez is the “maxi invasion”. Women engaged in labour, whether it be the kitchen, the bhatti bar-house or the fields, have taken over the Western nightie and made it their own as a day-time working dress. All over Nepal, women spend their days in designs perfected for sleep, and who is to question their choice? The voluminous maxi, after all, is comfortable, an easy slip-on, and if there is one thing it does, it keeps the grasping male at bay by revealing nothing and indicating no desire.
While women should be left free with their choice, one can make some suggestions to add a dash of colour, class or style, however. For example, it is so easy to convert a maxi into an acceptable public dress. You could either wear a loose chaubandi outside your maxi and shorten the maxi by six inches, or do away with laces and have the platting under the breast rather than above. As far as the kurta is concerned, it should reach just below the knees—not too long, not too tight, not too loose. Women who are too thin or too fat need not wear the churidar shawl. My favorite is the Nepali daura style, knee-high kurta with churidar. And, no matter what kind of sexy, open, half-naked Western dress you choose to wear, with a Dhaka vest on top, you beat the competition to the prize and look sophisticated to boot.
Whether it be the long-slitted kurta, the halter top or the workhorse maxi/nightie, redesigned or not, in the end it is up to the individual woman of Nepal to decide what she will wear. As long as she is not acting to the dictates of a boyfriend, a husband, the larger male-volent society, or the male designer, she should feel free to wear what she chooses, when she chooses. The last thing she should do is to choose her pahiran to please her man, or men.